A Crisis of Knowing in 44 Fragments

1. I’m not entirely sure when everything splintered into fragments. One night I warmed my hands by a fire as a full moon rose above the woods, and then a breeze rustled through palm trees as sand and sweat stuck to my skin, and then a UPS truck kicked up a flurry of blaze orange leaves, and then, a few hours later, those leaves were blanketed in snow. Slivers of days were captured through a lens, pixelated and distilled down into an image on a screen, and distributed via small squares onto handheld devices. A series of jump cuts coalesce into a montage, small scenes solidify into a story, a narrative, a stand in for an intangible thing we call a life.

2. The word coalesce is rooted in the Latin coalescere, which means to grow together or perhaps more accurately to grow with. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been alone for a year but I like the idea of separate elements coming together, uniting, creating something whole — like little scraps of fabric comprising a quilt.

3. “The Social Dilemma” stitched interviews alongside a fictional, sort of sci-fi storyline to create a “documentary-drama hybrid,” presumably because the reality of social media isn’t terrifying enough, or dramatic enough, or perhaps we are just inured to its terrors. Or perhaps it’s just me who is inured to its terrors, because I meet any critique of social media with this: I know it’s bad for me but I keep doing it anyway and I’m not sure anything experts say will change my mind or my habits. I return to these platforms like a tongue returns to an open wound: Maybe one more swipe and then I will feel healed.

4. Barrett Swanson is not on social media, a decision he writes about briefly in Lost in Summerland and also addressed on a recent virtual craft talk for the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild, where he said he’s interested in “preserving a self not dictated by algorithms.” There’s something incredibly satisfying about reading a critique of something from someone who is wholly removed from that world, medium, or platform. What I find lacking in the critiques of “The Social Dilemma” was an acknowledgement by reviewers that they were not just complicit but also heavily reliant on ‘the social industry’ for their jobs. If they opted out of social media, where would they post about or market or distribute their latest article critiquing a film critiquing social media?

5. Despite, or perhaps because of his critiques, author Richard Seymour is on social media. I read a BookForum review of The Twittering Machine earlier this summer, but curiously didn’t see much about it online, even though its publisher Verso has a pretty robust social media presence. (Perhaps a book about the demise of society at the hands of social media doesn’t make for good social media fodder? I wonder why a publisher might refrain from social media promotion of a book critiquing social media?) What drew me to The Twittering Machine, and what differentiated it from other books I’d read about technology, was how Seymour made it personal for me, attacking the very thing I hold most dear: pointing out how we’re spending all this time on these platforms writing (and sometimes promoting our writing) but what could or would we be writing if we were not writing on these platforms for free?

6. In her October offering, Tarot reader Jessica Dore writes, “The icehouse is any place in life where you have chosen to siphon or partition off vital energy in service of staying the same. Any place you’ve thrown up a barricade against pretty much the one truly un-interruptible thing in life, which is change.”

7. “Once I confused the passage of time with change,” Claudia Rankine writes in Just Us. “It was a careless use of language’s unfreedoms.”

8. The verb change comes from the Latin word for barter. We have to exchange one thing for another. “Yes, you can leave the icehouse, and yes, it’s going to cost you,” Jessica Dore writes, while Claudia Rankine notes meaningful change, specifically in anti-racism work, “is harder than you would think because white people don’t really want change if it means they need to think differently than they do about who they are.”

9. The world changed (for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, etc., etc., etc.). I adapted, out of necessity, and often have to remind myself: Things are not as they once were or used to be. I became increasingly frustrated with my increasing use of social media, wondering why I kept returning to it, and then one day I realized, oh, yeah, this has become my main form of human interaction.

10. I bought The Twittering Machine assuming it would reinforce what I already knew about social media (that it’s bad for my brain and emotions and everything) yet knowing what I already knew wasn’t prompting any meaningful change — much like Jonathan Safran Foer confronts his own hypocrisy in his book We Are the Weather. Where Seymour’s book differs from others of its kind is in asking, yes we know this is bad for us so why do we keep doing it? What are we getting out of it? Because if we keep doing it, we must be getting something out of it. And to give it up at what cost?

11. I often remind myself, I chose this. Eighteen months ago I chose to end a relationship in part because I needed more space and solitude than I was afforded. And then I remind myself, I did not choose this, meaning I did not choose to be so alone so unequivocally for so long. I have to remind myself I’m not interacting with humans, not really. I’m interacting with a screen — just as you, now, are interacting not with me but with my words arranged on a screen, typed on a digital document, uploaded to a platform, sent through the abyss and onto your screen. The disconnect between who I am as a human and who I am as a persona on the internet became apparent when someone I hadn’t seen for five weeks asked how I was doing, and when I said okay, they said, your Instagram captions are… and I offered, dense? To which they replied, No. Sad. I later asked myself, Am I sad? Is sadness me? Or am I simply aware of and reflecting the state of the world?

12. Before melancholia, there was a demon dubbed acedia. Seymour writes how monasteries used the term to “describe an affliction of the devoted,” characterized by “a lack of care about one’s life; a listless, restless spiritual lethargy. The condition left one yearning for distraction and continued novelty, exploiting one’s petty hates and hungers. It dissolved one’s capacity for attending, for living as if living mattered, into a series of itches demanding to be scratched.” (Or wounds demanding to be prodded with one’s own tongue. Or screens swiped with one’s thumb.) The sluggishness marked a kind of “spiritual death.”

13. In the second chapter, “We Are All Addicts,” Seymour points out how internet and social media addictions aren’t really comparable to what’s listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The closest correlation is gambling, since it’s the only one not tied to a substance, but the DSM doesn’t recognize gambling as an addiction but as a disorder. Internet gaming is recognized as a disorder in other countries, with established treatment programs, but the USA is still compiling research. It’s hard to even begin to talk about our reliance or obsession or addiction to social media, let alone do something about it, if it’s not recognized as an issue. So in order to discuss and remedy it, Seymour writes, “we need a new language.”

14. Last December I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (a sentence that feels unreal to me now). Small speakers were set up in one corner of a gallery: a sound installation by Steffani Jemison titled Rectatif (Maybe we need new words), which was crafted “using Solresol, a language created by French composer Francois Sudre in the early nineteenth century.” Sudre intended it “to be a universal language uniting all of humanity, highlighting how other languages can be used toward exclusionary ends.” Jemison paired the sound with yellow neon letters that spelled REVELATiON, a reference to “the work of artist James Hampton, who invented and used his own personal language, which has never been deciphered. […] In a notebook found after Hampton’s death, the word ‘revelation’ was written in English across the bottom of many pages. The word marks a moment when previously unknown information comes into focus, such as in the transition from illiteracy to literacy. Jemison’s works position us as outsiders, asking us to learn a new language and to consider how languages can either bind people together or set them apart.”

15. The Twittering Machine notes how addicted people who quit substances “don’t merely plot a path to abstinence, they learn an entirely new way of being.”

16. A month before my trip to the museum, I decided I needed a new way of being: I swore off social media, dating, and declined plans with friends to be alone for a spell (a month, to be exact), which was difficult but restorative and now feels totally perverse considering I could have gone to bars and restaurants and stores and hugged friends and strangers without abandon — and now I could still do that, because technically places are open, but I won’t, not because I don’t want to but because we are in the midst of an ever-exploding pandemic in Wisconsin, and plus, it’s a lot easier to sit here complaining about solitude than it is to exchange the certainty of aloneness with the uncertainty of someone else, which would require openness, vulnerability, and a willingness to extend myself toward another being.

17. At the museum, staring at the yellow neon installation and absorbing the music, I noticed another word within the word: revelation, a surprising and previously unknown fact, contains the word elation.

18. “What I am doing here in Scotland right now is the stuff of being an ancestor,” Hannah Lees writes. “Nothing grand. Just, as Nan Shepherd calls, a leave to live.” Born in Scotland, raised in New Zealand, Lees moved to London, where she sheltered-in-place with her partner. While visiting family in Scotland, she wrote, “I feel less as though every single thing is a referendum on my worthiness. Each day I am struck at least once by the future nourishment value of this time, the squirrelled-awayness of it all, the collecting of stuff with which to build and coalesce.”

19. In October we received six or so inches of snow and I trudged through the woods with my dog and thought about how I was doing this exact thing almost a year ago, and back then I felt mostly elated to be alone and in complete solitude. It felt, as Hannah Lees wrote, as though I was squirreling away and collecting “stuff with which to build and coalesce.” But what was supposed to be temporary now feels fixed, and didn’t exactly coalesce into much of anything except fragments: books on solitude marked with marginalia and stacked atop an ironing board, digital documents of half-finished outlines and collections of quotes, and a pile of ink-filled journals on the floor. The more pervasive my solitude became, the harder it was to capture.

20. At the root of fragments is the word break so perhaps it has to completely split at the seams before it can be stitched back together. The Twittering Machine notes, “we learn most from a technology when it breaks down,” because a breakdown actually “stimulates scientific research and new knowledge.”

21. And a stitch is both a stabbing pain and a loop of thread meant to merge two things together — it is both the open wound and the connective tissue needed to heal.

22. In the opening essay of Lost in Summerland, Barrett Swanson writes, “I’ve grown tired of stitching this into some orderly narration, when the truth is that I have no more stories to relate, no more anecdotes to decode.”

23. A year ago when I chose solitude I started reading other people’s accounts of solitude because I wondered what it would look like to choose a life of solitude, and whether it was even possible to make such a choice in an age of interconnection — of neverending social media feeds. It all started with Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s book Gift From the Sea, which the author reportedly wrote in a very short amount of time, a fact which prompted me to set unrealistic expectations of how quickly I could write a book — ambitions which fractured when I remembered Anne Morrow Lindbergh did not possess a smartphone or an internet connection in the 1950s. But Lindbergh’s solitude was temporary, and I wanted to find someone whose solitude had become fixed. All of the other accounts came up short, in that they didn’t quite reflect my particular experience or the questions I wanted answered. The ones written by men were mostly heroic accounts of extreme self-reliance and setting off into the woods (like Thoreau, whose mother did his laundry). The accounts written by women were mostly about being single as opposed to solitude, because a woman’s state of being is often (still) tied to other beings: a partner, a spouse, a baby. Kate Bolick’s 2015 book Spinster even begins, “Whom to marry and when it will happen — these two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice.” In narratives on solitude, it’s perfectly acceptable — if not admirable — to be an eternal bachelor, to go off into the woods and live a life of self-reliance, but a woman in the same context is a spinster, usually reduced to a batty, barren man-hater.

24. We need new words, a new language, a new way of being.

25. The Twittering Machine points out how the Latin root for addiction originally meant “to be given over, delivered.” And then it took on a new meaning: “to addict was to devote, consecrate or sacrifice.” Which sounds beautiful, doesn’t it? To devote your life to something or someone? That’s why quitting is not necessarily about abstaining but about learning or creating “an entirely new way of being.”

26. Tibetan Buddhists traditionally enter a solitary retreat for three years, three months, and three days. In 1995 a woman in San Francisco named Judith Skinner retreated to her own apartment, intending to stay there for three years, three months, three days. She stayed for twenty-four years. I watched a short film about her last January, and one thing she said remains with me: How she had gone kicking and screaming to this destiny, when she could have gone gracefully. So in January I asked myself, what it would look like to go gracefully, to stop kicking and screaming, to live alone willingly, and yet I wasn’t sure if that willingness was an acceptance or a resignation or perhaps a combination of the two.

27. Jungian analyst Frith Luton wrote, “Life naturally involves the collision between conflicting obligations and incompatible desires,” and “some degree of conflict is even desirable, since without it the flow of life is sluggish.” Jessica Dore adds how Jung “said that it was in holding this tension that ‘a third thing in which the opposites can unite’ emerges.” So perhaps the trick is holding the tension between my enduring solitude and my desire for connection, and squeezing them tight, until the two coalesce into that third thing.

28. “What we call addictions are misplaced devotions: we love the wrong things” (Seymour). At the beginning of my extended solitude last year, I cried to a friend that it felt like my affections were perpetually misplaced — like I kept filling the wrong containers, loved the wrong things. A few days later, I walked across a park in Minneapolis alone and thought, I will marry my writing then, and — I shit you not — five minutes later I turned around and an entire wedding party had suddenly materialized on the very same spot where I had thought about marriage.

29. Seymour explains gambling was once seen as “a divinatory device.” Like how you might come across a list and jump to your lucky number to divine its meaning in your life (mine’s 22). The addictive lottery and divinatory device we call ‘the algorithm’ offers the same sort of signs, like omens or augurs, and — I shit you not — as I contemplated this, ‘the algorithm’ served up another gem from Jessica Dore, who writes about how in old stories the questing heroes will suddenly “start tossing all their valuables,” all of the things they once loved and carried with them, even the things with “deep sentimental or even worldly value.” And in the stories, the discarded valuables shapeshift into what eventually saves them. Dore writes, “I think it’s this idea that when you’re willing to let go of the things that you once believed you couldn’t do without, those things themselves actually become part of this supportive chorus that ultimately helps you along.”

30. But the thing about divinatory devices is we don’t always want the answer we receive. For every happy pull on the slot machine, there’s an unhappy one — or more like ten unhappy ones, a stack of losses. The other day the algorithm served up an Instagram post of white text on a black background that said, If you are not capable of being alone, the relationship is false. It is just a trick to avoid your loneliness, nothing else. To which I was like, fuck that and fuck that guy (‘that guy’ being Osho). I am capable of being alone. I just don’t want to be alone. Just like I’m capable of abstaining from social media but for some reason I don’t want to yet. I am, in Seymour’s words, “devoted to what kills us.”

31. Surely none of this has anything to do with how I unexpectedly met a guy last month and we had so much fun for a very brief period of time and before he left he said to let him know the next time I visit the city where he lives because it would be so much fun and so we added each other on Instagram where he messaged me and there was some casual back and forth but then it quickly became apparent to me that he has a girlfriend, most likely for years now, which he neglected to mention both before and after he kissed me, and yet I continue to follow him and watch his stories of him cooking and sharing meals with said girlfriend, because, you know, I am devoted to what kills me.

32. “There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted and the things I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that fact, I had decided to want nothing at all.” Rachel Cusk, Outline

33. Addiction, Seymour notes, is not actually about pleasure but desire, appetite and anticipation, “something that is done with wanting, by those who are done with wanting.” Moxie Marlinspike, the founder of the messaging app Signal, recently told The New Yorker, “If I’m dissatisfied with this world — and I think that I might be — a problem is that you can only desire based on what you know. You have certain experiences in this world, they provide certain desires, those desires reproduce the world. Our reality today just keeps reproducing itself. If you can create different experiences that manifest different desires, then it’s possible that those will lead to the production of different worlds.”

34. I really want to renounce social media, to leave the icehouse, to willingly let go of the things you once believed you couldn’t do without, to create different experiences that manifest different desires. And yet you’ve probably noticed I get something from the status quo: not likes, but divination — small hits of information and perspective from other people in other parts of the world, not to mention a semblance of connection during a time where I can easily go entire days without speaking to a single human being. But it’s leaning toward an emotional dependency where another emotional relationship has failed (Seymour). Last year, after a series of emotional relationships failed, I spent the winter reading narratives of solitude, embracing simplicity, and stopped wanting anything at all — naively thinking I could change my mind at any time and reenter the world. Despite my efforts, I still found myself wanting, in denial about what I wanted, feeling like I wanted the wrong things, and allowing other things to puncture my solitude not because they were the things I wanted but because they were the things I could apparently have. I did not think I could do without these interruptions via social media, because it felt like they were a supportive chorus. But much like you’re not reading me, you’re reading a screen, the app is not the supportive chorus — everything I find on the app usually leads me off the app, to an article or a newsletter or a book. Still, I hesitate because letting go of social media feels like plunging further into the type of solitude I’m trying to avoid. But isn’t that the myth we’ve been sold and led to believe? Seymour acknowledges how our lives are so intimately interwoven with the social industry, it can provoke distress to detach from it. We keep our phones close and charged, he notes, “as though, one day, it’s going to bring us the message we’ve been waiting for.”

35. I once told an ex-boyfriend, “You don’t wait by the phone, the phone waits by you.” He wrote it down in his phone, probably to steal for his own writing later. Waiting sounds so passive. June Jordan commemorated anti-apartheid protests with a poem ending with, we are the ones we have been waiting for. And there’s that 2006 John Mayer song about waiting on the world to change. Yet there’s an active quality to waiting: to delay but also to anticipate eagerly, which is to say yearn, pine, long for something or someone — bringing us back to wanting, to desire. It feels so misguided to place so much activity in an inanimate object. Refusing to wait, then, feels like a refusal to want.

36. Seven weeks ago I dreamt I received a text message that just said, patience. That was it. One word. No context or further explanation. It’s such a simple word, one I associated with virtue and religion — waiting patiently for mass to be over as a child, so I could go to the corner store for homemade donuts — , but when I looked it up later that day I was surprised by the definition: the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.

37. The word patience comes from the word patient, which means suffering. Patience, then, is not peacefully dreaming of donuts at the end of mass and then being rewarded with said donuts. Patience is trying to get to the end of a neverending social media feed. Patience is poking the open sore with the edge of your tongue to find, yep, it still hurts.

38. My mother likes the buddhist term for suffering: dukkha. The Buddha’s very first teaching was the Four Noble Truths, and the first of those capital-T truths is how suffering is inevitable. There are three types: physical and emotional discomfort, change and impermanence, and the simple fact of existence. (Yes, existence itself is suffering, said the man who set off into the woods alone to meditate!) In my family we call self-inflicted suffering double dukkha. Devoting yourself temporarily to solitude after a series of breakups but before a pandemic forces you into near-monastic isolation and then not knowing how to escape that prison of your own design while the world around you pretends like all is well is a kind of double dukkha.

39. There’s a feature on Google which mines data from archives and calculates the usage of a particular word over time. Perhaps you, like me, will be surprised to learn the term suffer peaked in 1808 and steadily declined in usage — the year the USA abolished the import of enslaved individuals and James Madison was elected president. And, I shit you not, I sat here wondering what to make of that, and then the addictive lottery and divinatory device we call ‘the algorithm’ served up a video from The New Yorker, where Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax recount how a very sunny, optimistic piece of music was inscribed by Beethoven with the words, “Amid tears and sorrow.” They asked themselves why, and realized he wrote it in 1808–1809, as Napoleon invaded Vienna and Beethoven began losing his hearing. And despite all this, despite the inscription amid tears and sorrow, the music is “hopeful, beautiful, generous.” Yo-Yo Ma calls it, “noble. Idealistic.”

40. The Indo-European root of noble is know, and I don’t know about you but I want to know: What will happen November 3rd? Will I have to suffer through four more years of Twitter tirades, and texts from my conservative father extolling the virtues of a monster? When will the pandemic be over? Will we ever go back to “normal”? Did I even like it when things were “normal”? Is my near-monastic isolation forever or a phase? Will I look back on this time and find my anxieties trivial, or realize the significance of this moment was beyond any immediate grasp? Am I squandering my solitude? Am I even asking the right questions? What good is a question if it’s un-Google-able? The Twittering Machine says we are in a crisis of knowing, possessing so much information but so little knowledge, and living in an age where an “increase in information corresponds to a decrease in meaning.” Seymour asks, “What if we were not in the know? What if our reveries were not productive?” What if, like Hannah Lees writes, we lived like ancestors? In a realm where every single thing is no longer a referendum of our worthiness?

41. In mid-April I began to consider how this new way of being may not be a temporary state, and wondered what it would look like to set up structures and routines as if it were permanent. Around that time, @ereditacreativehouse wrote, “we don’t try to articulate the shape of this experience much anymore. We assume we all know. It’s old news. We’ve gone quiet. But, I assume, this moment here feels quite different than a month ago. The structure and confines may be the same but the cadence and the way it feels to be within it does not. I wonder why we dismiss the role of nuance so quickly. The fact we do changing our experience itself, not just our articulation of this experience. This, fifty-seven(?)th day will be uniquely particular. May I notice.”

42. To notice stems from the Latin notitia, ‘being known.’ Over a year ago I scribbled to know and be known on a piece of paper. I wasn’t sure where the phrase even came from or why I was writing it down — like some strange divination — but that seemed like the goal, the purpose, the whole point: to know and be known. I never thought to ask what or who or by whom. It appears a year later in the pages of Just Us by Claudia Rankine: “Alongside her willingness to challenge, I imagine there exists the desire to know and be known.” And later she writes a sentence that reads like a kind of prayer: “Anchored in unknowing, I year to rise out of the restlessness of my own forms of helplessness inside a structure that constricts possibilities.”

43. “I am not a religious person,” Emanuel Ax says while sitting at the piano. “This is my religion.” To him, playing Beethoven’s Cello Sonata №3 over and over — devoting himself to the intricacies of one piece of music — is the opposite of the phrase familiarity breeds contempt: “It’s familiarity breeds more and more amazement.” To which Yo-Yo Ma adds, “preciousness.” Devoting myself to solitude initially felt amazing and precious because it was this newfound thing: living as if living mattered, being an ancestor, long walks in the woods with my dog, not answering to anyone or anything — a shade of liberation other people would kill for. Now I wonder if Virginia Woolf is rolling in her grave as I complain about the very privilege she advocated for in her 1929 essay ‘A Room of One’s Own.’ What would she think if I told her this hard-won solitude feels like a consolation prize? Or if I told her how I wish solitude were an instrument I could pick up and put down at will — a piano I can sit with whenever I want and then leave, knowing it will not follow me from room to room? But it’s not an instrument, it’s a broken record; a seemingly interminable and all-consuming state, prompting me to pick up and put down my phone over and over, one more swipe — familiarity souring to contempt. I want to be done with solitude but it feels like it’s not done with me yet.

44. Woolf wrote,“if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born. As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would be impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.”

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writer, editor, & bookstore co-founder — elizabethdecleyre.com/about

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